The rise of corporate nations


Facebook is set to launch a global cryptocurrency named Libra, which is expected to come online in the first half of 2020 PHOTO/Dado Ruvic/ILLUSTRATION/Reuters

Multinational corporations are increasingly encroaching on the functions of sovereign states.

“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today … The world is a collage of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.” 

The famous monologue from the film Network delivered by actor Ned Beatty in 1976 reflected growing anxiety at the time that corporate power could eventually overturn democracy. Today, what was feared 40 years ago is becoming a reality. Corporations have become the nations of the world and they increasingly act as such.

Last month, Facebook announced that it is introducing its own currency, Libra, which the more than two billion users (or “citizens”) of the platform will be able to use to pay for goods and services.

The announcement comes at a time when the monetary policies of countries across the world have increasingly accommodated the interests of big corporations and the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people. This has led to both unprecedented deregulation, which has caused repeated economic crises, and the subsequent imposition of severe austerity measures hurting the livelihoods of millions of citizens.

Facebook’s cryptocurrency initiative signals that this issue will assume even bigger proportions. For millennia, one of the defining features of sovereignty has been the minting and circulation of state-specific currency. Corporations like Facebook are now taking over this prerogative from governments. But monetary policy isn’t neutral: It is one of the main levers for the distribution of wealth and privilege.

Facebook has given its assurances to US lawmakers, claiming the company wants to “do this right”. Libra will initially be just a payment method, anchored to a basket of hard currencies, and not an autonomous coin – or so has been promised. But during a July 16 congressional hearing, Facebook executive David Marcus struggled to answer questions about how this new currency would be regulated.

At the heart of the matter is the problem of decision-making and accountability. Facebook’s corporate executives, who already have substantial power by way of having access to large swaths of data on billions of people, will acquire another lever of control over the world – currency. At the same time, they will remain unaccountable to anyone but themselves in the way they manage monetary operations.

Imagine, for example, what effect Libra would have on countries with unstable or weak currencies. Would it become a mainstream substitute for the Argentinean peso or the Venezuelan bolivar? What guarantees are there that Facebook executives would not take advantage of the power Libra gives them and use it to economically and politically blackmail a weak government?

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